Monday, July 16, 2007

Marijuana cultivation on public land in the U.S. is a multibillion-dollar business, run by Mexican drug cartels and guarded by heavily armed members of U.S.-based street gangs and Mexican nationals, says the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

“Our national treasures are now ground zero for international and domestic drug cultivation and trafficking,” said drug czar John P. Walters. “We must push back against the invasion of foreign drug-trafficking organizations through increased law-enforcement collaboration, enhanced intelligence and expanded investigations to reclaim our public lands.”

Mr. Walters made his comments last week during Operation Alesia, a multiagency marijuana-eradication initiative in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the largest national forest in California.

Coordinated by the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office with the support of the California National Guard, the weeklong operation involved 17 federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies.

“America’s public lands are under attack,” Mr. Walters said. “Instead of being appreciated as national treasures, they are being exploited and destroyed by foreign drug-trafficking organizations and heavily armed Mexican marijuana cartels.”

ONDCP spokesman Stephen E. Schatz said violent Mexican drug cartels construct, operate and manage 80 percent to 90 percent of all U.S.-based marijuana plantations — most of which are in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Kentucky, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington and West Virginia.

Mr. Schatz said those hired to tend and guard them do so with high-tech equipment and state-of-the-art weapons.

He said California’s public lands are exceptionally vulnerable, adding that nine out of the top 10 marijuana-producing sites are found in that state and that 57 percent of all marijuana produced on public land in the U.S. is grown in California.

“Last year alone, close to 2.8 million outdoor marijuana plants were eradicated in California, including 1.7 million plants from federal and state land, with an estimated street value of $6.7 billion,” he said.

The marijuana plantations also have lead to a litany of problems for outdoor enthusiasts, law-enforcement personnel and the environment, he said. An increasing number of campers, fishermen, hikers, hunters and forest and park officials are being intimidated, threatened or assaulted when they come near a Mexican-run marijuana garden.

Mr. Schatz said the ecosystems in the nation’s forests and parks are also being jeopardized, adding that to establish and maintain a marijuana plantation, the drug cartels must clear-cut native plants and trees, poach and hunt wildlife, and divert natural waterways — all to the detriment of the ecosystems.

He said federal authorities have estimated that one marijuana garden can produce as much as 53 thirty-gallon bags of trash per season.

The National Parks Service has said that for every acre of forest planted with marijuana, a total of 10 acres are damaged. The service has estimated that it costs $11,000 per acre to repair and restore national forest land once it is contaminated with toxic chemicals and fertilizers, human waste, and irrigation tubing and pipes associated with marijuana cultivation.

Mr. Walters, during a press conference at the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, described those who plant and tend the gardens as terrorists and said Operation Alesia was aimed at crippling the drug gangs behind the marijuana cultivation.

“This business we intend to put into recession, depression, and put its leaders into jail,” he said.

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